On Being a Vocational Mess

Alternate Title: Embarking on a Vocational Adventure with No Known Ending and Pretending You’re Not Completely and Entirely Stressed Out About It

Jerusalem PathI like to be right.

I’ve been on a mission to find the “right” answers since I was really young. My first-grade-self took great pride in acing spelling tests week after week. I thrived in the routine of taking a fresh list of words home each Monday afternoon, figuring out the patterns and rhythms of the words on the list, memorizing the tricky sight words with extra care, and knowing that by the time Friday morning rolled around, I could confidently produce a list of correctly spelled words at my teacher’s dictation. My third-grade-self rejoiced in her ability to memorize math facts like nobody’s business and found incredible joy in the certainty of forever knowing that 3×7=21 and 56÷7=8.  As friends who have been subject to my text message critiques know all too well, my 24-year-old self has a deep affinity for grammar: for the consistency, for the structure, and for the mere fact that most of the time there is a right and a wrong answer. I like rules. I like answers. I really, really like clarity.

This is maybe one of the reasons why I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the concept of vocation. First of all, no one has ever been able to truly give me a satisfying definition of vocation, which is enough to drive anyone with a love of words and definitions and clearly defined categories absolutely crazy. If we don’t really know what “vocation” is, how exactly am I supposed to know if I’m living out my vocation correctly? Isn’t there a Vocational Checklist for Overachievers for easy reference, or at the very least a Buzzfeed quiz to tell me if I’m on the right track?

But maybe therein lies the problem. Maybe vocation isn’t about finding the right answer. Maybe a right vocational answer doesn’t even exist. Maybe vocation is just broad enough, just messy enough, just beautiful enough that it cannot be reduced to a single job description or a list of specific academic degrees. And maybe for each of us, a number of expressions of vocation are not only equally valid but equally holy.

I knew I had to reevaluate the way I’d been engaging with the concept of vocation when I found myself in tears while reading about Martin Luther’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers” for a summer class a few weeks ago. (In tears while reading Luther. Welcome to my life.) I came to seminary hoping to ask a lot of questions and wrestle with my own theology and do a whole lot of discerning, and while I have done all of these things, I also realized that somewhere along the line, the beauty and mystery of vocation got swept away. My freedom in Christ to serve my neighbors that is so foundational to Lutheran theology was replaced with a sense of total dread, a pit in my stomach, and the belief that I had to fit a certain seminary mold, allow myself to be shaped in the traditional seminary way (whatever that means), and eventually be sent out to serve as a parish pastor. This started to feel like the only “right” way to live into my vocation, the only way the church would recognize as valid, and the only way to show that I really was dedicated to my Lutheran faith. And don’t get me wrong: the call to parish ministry is a beautiful call. I have all the respect in the world for parish pastors, and I am so excited for my seminary classmates that sense this call themselves. But, to be honest, I don’t know that that particular call has ever really fit me. And it turns out I needed the words of Martin Luther himself to shake me to my core and to remind me that there are other, equally valid, equally holy paths so desperately needed in the Body of Christ.

So, maybe I will be a pastor. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll find my way into social work or education or writing and will live out the call to love my neighbors in those spaces. Maybe I will help lead the Church by inviting people to taste the Holy Spirit’s goodness in ministries being lived out in unexpected places and ways outside of our church buildings, or maybe I will invite people into these buildings to create a space of radical hospitality, refuge, and community. And maybe I’m not failing or giving up or “running from the call” but instead maybe I’m courageously living into a call that is broad and layered and cross-disciplinary and, like the untamable Spirit who calls us into community and equips us with her gifts, maybe this vocational call refuses to be pinned down into a single “right” answer.

And, maybe that’s okay.

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